An Egyptian man in his late twenties pushed a trinket into our hands. “This is gift for first time visiting Giza Pyramids, you will take.”
We looked at the souvenir and handed it back.
“No, it’s quite alright. Thank you.”
He pushed it back, and after a minute of playing pass the parcel, we gave up and walked away with trinket in hand.
“Hey miss! No, no, come here. Pay me money or give me back,” he called out. We laughed.
As it is, one of the wonders of the world is teeming with tourist touts, but they are harmless and do not take away from the wonder and charm of the pyramids.
THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
It was our second day in Cairo – a brief stint to meet my in-laws – and we were smitten. We left the apartment in Zamalek, one of Cairo’s trendier neighbourhood, before noon. It was early March and winter has just left Egypt, leaving a trail of cold gusts and light showers. “This feels so surreal, like how I imagined Agrabah to be when I was a kid,” I told my husband.
Surprisingly, it took less than an hour to reach Giza. The entrance was full of tour buses, donkeys with goods tied to their backs and horse carriages ready for passengers.
We could already see the tip of the pyramids, our eyes drinking in the sight like little children waiting to unwrap their birthday presents.
Even if you only have 12 hours in Cairo, you must not miss out on the Giza Pyramids.
At some point, it felt like I was on the set of Star Wars, and sometimes amongst the hustle and bustle of men trying to sell their wares and camels brushing against me as I walk, I half-expected Aladdin to swing by.
Let there be no doubt, the Giza Pyramids is steeped in wonderment and the kind of charm that leaves you feeling bewitched.
Entrance isn’t free but it isn’t exorbitant either. When we visited, the Sphinx was off-limits to visitors due to restoration works (and might still be).
Where are the mummies, you ask? Why, they’re resting in the Egyptian Museum.
Also known as the Museum of Cairo, it houses the largest collection of pharaonic artefacts with a gallery dedicated to royal mummies and their treasures.
“Look, this queen was buried with her pet monkey,” a young tourist gasped.
I slithered over to see the wrapped up remains of a once revered queen, her hair braided and sprawled behind her. At her side was a mummy of a beloved pet monkey.
Every nook and corner of the early 1900 building is filled with ancient treasures, including the gold mask of Tutankhamun.
We initially planned to spend just two hours at the museum but between oohing and aah-ing over ancient Roman antiquities and the vast collection of pharaonic artefacts, it took us more than three.
We only had a little over 72 hours in Cairo, our budget was puny but our zeal to see as much as we can was uncontainable.
The day we arrived, we took straight to the souks of Al-Hussein and let me tell you, nothing can quite prepare a woman on a shoestring budget for the self-restraint she needs to practice while wandering down the isles.
Hand woven sisal rugs, jewellery, hammered copper lamps, lacquered wooden furniture – everything called out to be touched, to be loved, to be brought home. If you’re into artisanal pieces for your home (who isn’t?), get ready to haggle your bank account away.
If you do not plan on spending or shopping, Al-Hussein is still worth a visit. The souk is a shutterbug’s haven. The glitter of artisanal goods, piles of rubble and litter, fruit scented shisha smoke, the smell of freshly brewed mint tea, old men squatting in a corner and chatting away, the architecture – it is sensory overload.
The market of Al-Hussein, also known as the Khan Al-Khalili open air bazaar, is nestled between two of the city’s major landmarks – the Al-Hussein Mosque and the Al-Azhar University. It gives you a true reflection of the traditional Egypt way of life.
If you have more time and are on the look out for luxury statement pieces, then Asfour Crystal is your destination. Asfour is Egypt’s premium crystal maker – everything from prayer beads to chandeliers to wall tiles and even jewellery. The best thing is they have something for every budget. I bought a pair of crystal earrings for just $5.
The Asfour Crystal showroom is quite a drive away, but it is worth a trip if that’s the sort of souvenir you’re looking to take home.
PLACES TO EAT
Speaking of way of life, how better to immerse yourself then by tucking into local delicacies, right?
Well, personally, I’m not big on trying foreign delicacies. Especially if it involves innards and meats that do not fit my boring BCS category (beef, chicken and seafood). So, when our trusted tour guide suggested we try kebdah (stir fried camel liver) for lunch, I was prepared to starve.
In all fairness, it smelled pretty good – a mouthwatering blend of onion and herbs. It’s a low-calorie dish that’s rich in iron and according to our guide, “it’s good for health”.
“The texture is rubbery but the sauce is delicious. This bread is good too,” my husband assures. I did not try.
For the less culinary adventurous, there is hamam mahshi which is fried or roasted rice-stuffed pigeon. My favourite is the ful medames – mashed broad beans delicately seasoned and eaten with pita bread.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, keep a look-out for Abu Auf, an Egyptian shop selling scrumptious sweet delights such as almond nougat and spiced nuts – ideal for gifting.
There are trendy eateries in the neighborhood of Zamalek where you can sip on your coffee and marvel at the River Nile. Yes, the Nile! The sunsets are incredible, so if you choose to visit Zamalek for a quick bite, come just before sunset.
If you’re feeling peckish on the road, fret not, the streets of Cairo are dotted with vendors selling fresh fruits, juices and breads – all so easy on the purse strings.
When we visited, we had less than four days to explore. Granted our accommodation was free, we spent around $400 between the two us for everything else (yes, shopping too). We stopped over in Dubai from Brunei, so we bought Egyptian pounds there.
Whatever your budget is, Cairo is as nostalgic as it is romantic, prying on your long-lost childhood imaginations and bringing to life your sense of adventure. So, if you only have 72 hours in Cairo, don’t forget to bring out the kid in you too.